Monday, April 25, 2011

Novelist Chang-rae Lee never surrenders quality

Originally printed March 9, 2011.

When you read the first chapter of Chang-rae Lee's novel "The Surrendered," you can't help but feel that all hope is lost. That the world has come crashing down. That a child left orphaned and sibling-less surely won't be able to survive the chaos caused by the rupture of North and South Korea.

Keep reading that you see that the child, June Han (later Singer), shows the same power and force at work in the main characters in Lee's earlier novels -- "Native Speaker" (1995), "A Gesture of Life" (1999) and "Aloft" (2004). And by the time the novel shifts to the 1980s -- and we see June in New York and Italy, suffering through the end stages of stomach cancer -- it's clear that it wasn't the war that made June so tough; she would have been that way however her life would have unfolded.

In "The Surrendered," Lee has chosen not to tell the story from any individual's perspective, but with a more traditional third-person omniscient narrator. So we experience much of the story told through the eyes of Hector Brennan, a discharged American soldier/classic-loser-alcoholic who works as a janitor at the Korean orphanage June finally finds her way to. And both June and Hector fall in love with Sylvie Tanner, the enigmatic wife of the minister who ran the orphanage.

Nearly all the critics praise Lee's ability to craft a haunting sentence and paragraph, yet some reviewers worry whether the storyline goes beyond heart-wrenching and surrenders too willingly to the power of melodrama.

Given the novel's length, perhaps they were right -- at least initially -- to be worried.

As Laura Miller noted in her review for Salon, "Big novels, like big dogs, are more appealing when imperfectly groomed, and for that reason I approached ... 'The Surrendered' with some trepidation."

But the jostling between war-time survival of the 1950s and the end-of-life experiences in the 1980s requires an acceptance of the unpredictability of life that melodrama can't endure.

And if there's one thing all three of Lee's characters know how to do, it's endure.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

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